Law firms either keep up with tech or get left behind

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Gabriel Teninbaum

I spend a lot of time thinking about a version of that classic interview question where applicants are asked to envision their future. But, instead of thinking about my own future, I think of the legal profession’s future. If you haven’t done it, give it a try: What will legal work look like in 15 years?

There is a reason to think it’ll look very different from it does now. E-discovery software now does the work once handled by new associates. Legal process outsourcing (LPO) companies have pulled due diligence work, and much more, to offshore locations (and away from domestic midsize firms). LegalZoom—now valued at $2 billion—is drawing millions of consumers every year choosing to handle legal matters without local attorneys.

If your vision includes the idea that the biggest legal employers may someday not even be law firms, then you’re correct. It’s already happened: The largest private provider of legal services in the world today is no longer a multinational law firm. It’s Deloitte, the Big Four accounting firm. Looming super-technologies—like AI and blockchain—are somewhere on the horizon, with the potential to upend legal work in ways that some believe will be unprecedented.

Unfortunately, in the face of all this change, the industry hasn’t done much to prepare. In one recent survey, 96 percent of Am Law 200 firm leaders said they do not believe their colleagues are highly aware of the challenges of the new legal marketplace.

So what should law firms, practitioners (or, for that matter, law students) do? How can they meet their obligation of being technologically competent, all while keeping up with their billable hours?

To begin, a few hours a year of CLE is not the answer. Simply put, a daylong seminar is useful to learn how to create pivot tables in Excel or to use the latest online legal research tools. It’s not enough to make a significant change, though. To do that requires retraining and a willingness to stay abreast of new technologies. The obligation to adopt this mindset has been spelled out as part of a lawyer’s duty to maintain technological skills in the ABA’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct (which has now been adopted in most U.S. states).

Only a handful of law schools teach these students core skills for the future of law: from data science to design thinking; from Python to process improvement. Their work has paid dividends. Graduates now occupy positions that didn’t exist a decade ago, holding jobs like “legal solutions architect,” “document automation specialist” or “knowledge management supervisor.” Some have become legal tech entrepreneurs while others are reinventing government using their skills. The majority have become traditional lawyers who know how to leverage new tools and technologies to do better work for their employers and clients.

Then comes the real challenge, which is helping the practitioners who graduated law school long before these programs were an option. These lawyers simply don’t have a chance to learn new methods and tools for legal work because there have, historically, been no training courses to do so. With the emergence of digital initiatives to train legal professionals online, there now appears to be a promising way to reach those who never had the opportunity in law school.

For those who gain these new skills, we anticipate an improvement in organizational cultures as more legal professionals come up to speed on innovation and technology. Recently, researchers discovered that the single best predictor of whether people will install solar panels on their roofs is whether their neighbors have done so. By investing resources in legal innovation and technology training, organizations can not only develop talent to work on existing matters; they can seed their workplace with “neighbors” who encourage others to change their own mindsets. Put differently: If you want an innovative law firm, train people in it, then listen in on their water cooler chatter. Soon enough, those with training will likely be spreading the gospel of analytics and design thinking.

Just as a lawyer in the 1950s likely could not conceive of e-discovery (or even the ability to instantaneously beam a letter to opposing counsel via email), we don’t know what we don’t know about the future of the legal profession. What we can predict, with near certainty, is that the legal profession will look dramatically different in the coming years. We can predict that as technologies change, and the system evolves to provide better, cheaper and faster approaches, clients will expect them.

Those who ignore advancements in technology that could improve legal services will do so at their peril. Those who choose to keep up on the tools available to them will have remarkable opportunities. For those who want to take part in the future of legal work, it’s time to get to work and reboot.

Gabriel Teninbaum is a professor at Suffolk University Law School, where he serves as director of the Institute on Legal Innovation & Technology, as well as the online Legal Innovation & Technology Certificate program for legal professionals. He can be reached at [email protected]. is accepting queries for original, thoughtful, nonpromotional articles and commentary by unpaid contributors to run in the Your Voice section. Details and submission guidelines are posted at “Your Submissions, Your Voice.”

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